Ramon Novarro’s 1968 murder, with its scandalous homophobic overtones, has tended to obscure his place in film history as Hollywood’s first Latin American leading man. To its credit, Andre Soares’ concisely written and carefully researched biography concentrates more heavily on Novarro’s achievements, starting with early aspirations to become a priest, moving on to stints as an extra and finally attaining major recognition in 1923’s “Scaramouche.”
Novarro was a definitive example of celluloid mythmaking, since his longest-lasting partner, Herbert Howe, was a columnist who planted scoops about fictional romances with Myrna Loy and other stars. Studio publicity also stretched his height from 5-foot-6 to 5-foot-10 but the actor astutely commented, “We are an illusion … just an image on the screen that can never live up to their expectations in person.”
Soares delves into the delays, lavish expenditures, illness and conflicts on the 1925 “Ben Hur,” catastrophes that rival 1963’s “Cleopatra,” and his details demonstrate how little has changed in the world of studio excess. Where the book falters is in mounting a seeming defense of Novarro’s talents and success while also supplying voluminous information that makes his career come across as artistically and financially disappointing. Too many unproven speculations about possible love affairs also compromise the integrity of the intriguing motion picture material. His last years were a dark, downhill slide into alcoholism, drunk driving and disastrous affairs. The end of the chronicle has a resonant sadness when close companion Don Atkins defined Novarro as a male Norma Desmond, eager to recover his lost fame and forever dreaming of a spectacular comeback.